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Often overlooked, Cali taps into Colombia’s heart

September 20, 2018

CALI, Colombia -- At La Topa Tolondra nightclub near downtown Cali, patrons salsa in every available inch of space on the packed dance floor long into the early-morning hours.

In the Granada neighborhood north of the Rio Cali, luxury cars cruise past fashionable boutiques and upscale restaurants.

Outside the Nuevo Latir bus station on the east side of town, men ride horses through the streets and residents pile into pickup truck beds and gypsy cabs known as piratas for their morning commutes. Guidebooks tell tourists not to come within several miles of this neighborhood after dark.

At night in Parque del Ingenio to the south, Caleños join exercise groups under floodlights while families stroll the park’s paths and buy cups of the sweet, fruity dessert cholado from street vendors.

Spilling from the foothills of the Andes into the sugar cane fields of the Valle de Cauca, home to more than 2 million people, Colombia’s third-largest city is a place that feels as diverse, as multi-faceted and as misunderstood as the nation itself.

Perhaps that’s why -- as Colombia has become a darling among international travelers drawn to its vibrant cities and stunning natural beauty now that the nation is far safer than it was a decade or two ago -- Cali has remained a relatively overlooked destination.

Judging from travel blogs and online forums, foreigners traveling through Colombia often only spend a day or two in Cali. Plenty don’t come at all, kept away by its reputation for crime, location well south of more popular cities and relative dearth of tourist-friendly activities.

But those who skip Cali are missing out on a gritty, buzzing city -- a place with a distinct brand of urban charm, fueled by its rich culture of creativity, self-expression and blend of influences from Afro-Colombian, indigenous and European origins.

Music is everywhere, and no one, from restaurant cooks to bus passengers, hesitates to loudly sing along. Color bursts from graffiti murals on walls and highway overpasses, celebrating Colombian authors, bemoaning environmental destruction, capturing city life and pushing for social change.

All of this makes Cali exactly the kind of place travelers should want to get to know.

Getting familiar in San Antonio

Under different circumstances, I may well have been one of those travelers who passes over Cali. The reason I came to the city was my girlfriend, Taylor, who spent six months living in Cali and teaching English in a public school.

For my two weeks in Colombia -- my first time in the country -- Cali would be my base camp. I spent 10 days in the city, and we took weekend trips to destinations within a few hours’ bus ride: Manizales in the gorgeous mountains of Colombia’s coffee-growing region, and the charming colonial city Popayán. Visits to Colombia’s other major cities would have to wait until next time.

I spent most of my days exploring Cali on my own while Taylor was at school, typically starting the morning with a walk to one of the hole-in-the-wall bakeries that dot her charming neighborhood, Barrio San Antonio, on a hill just west of downtown.

With narrow, quiet streets and architecture heavy on stately white colonial homes and colorful art deco buildings, the neighborhood is a good place for visitors to get their bearings.

Travelers learn a couple things quickly: First, that they shouldn’t count on everyone they meet speaking English -- you’ll need to know at least enough Spanish to get by in restaurants, shops and taxis, not to mention the airport immigration desk.

Second: While Cali, like Colombia as a whole, has made remarkable progress in reducing crime and violence, the gap between rich and poor in the city is vast, and visitors will want to take precautions they don’t have to take elsewhere.

I explored several wealthier neighborhoods on foot by day, but was advised not to walk on certain streets or in entire swaths of the city at all hours; same goes for taking out your cellphone in public or carrying much cash.

Taylor told me women are often subject to cat-calling and other harassment from men on the street.

Except for short walks on well-traveled routes, we took taxis at night.

Finding quirky sights during hot days

Given those restraints, part of me wondered whether I’d find enough fill my days in Cali. I needn’t have worried -- while Cali can feel quiet during the day, when its sweltering heat keeps many residents indoors, it has plenty of sights to keep a visitor busy.

I learned about one side of the city’s creative culture in exhibits of works by contemporary Colombian artists at Museo La Tertulia, the modern art museum along the Rio Cali in the posh El Peñon neighborhood. Independent galleries and art spaces are scattered around town.

There’s also the quirky Caliwood museum a few blocks away, which pays tribute to film history and Colombia’s movie industry, and where the enthusiastic proprietors are happy to show visitors around their collection of historic projectors, posters and cameras.

Closer to Cali’s bustling downtown, you can browse unique clothing, books and prints celebrating the city’s street art scene at the cafe and shop La Grafitería. Just up the street, past some impressive graffiti murals, is the 16th Century Iglesia La Merced, where hushed galleries display collections of indigenous artifacts and colonial-era art.

And at Galería Alameda, Cali’s bustling central market, you’ll find everything from orchids and incense to market stalls serving meal-sized Colombian tamales, which are delicious and roughly $2 apiece at Las Delicias de Ara, near the butcher section.

One of the market’s biggest draws is its bounty of distinctive Colombian produce -- be sure to try a lulada, a favorite local juice made with the refreshing and tart lulo fruit.

There’s an excellent juice stand between the market’s flower vendors and the lunch counter Basilia, which serves tasty plates typical of Colombia’s Pacific coast.

Cali’s proximity to the predominantly Afro-Colombia Pacífico region is one of the city’s most important cultural threads.

I wished I could’ve been in Cali for the Festival Petronio Álvarez in August after hearing Taylor rave about the multi-day celebration of Pacífico music, food and culture. I had to settle for a bowl of cazuela, a hearty seafood stew, at the Pacífico-fusion restaurant Las Delicias de Will’s downtown -- it was one of the best meals of my trip.

Afternoon breeze blows in excitement

You can feel the coast’s other important contribution each evening, when the “Pacific breeze” rolls into Cali from the other side of the mountains, cooling off the city and marking the time when it truly comes into its own.

If you’re looking for mellow nightlife, San Antonio is home to La Colina, one of the city’s oldest taverns and my favorite kind of establishment: A cozy, dimly-lit neighborhood joint where the median age of the men at the bar hovers somewhere north of 50.

Just across the street is a taproom pouring craft beers from Holy Water Ales in the nearby city Buga. The floral Jamaica, made with hibiscus and honey, is excellent.

The neighborhood also boasts plenty of restaurants and cafes that are popular in the evenings -- many of them a bargain compared to American prices -- such as the colorful Zea Maiz, where tasty stuffed arepas can be had for the equivalent of a few dollars apiece.

The park outside San Antonio’s namesake small church has a prime vista of the Cali skyline, making it popular among locals and visitors alike. Said to be the place where every Caleño couple wants to get married, the park is also the perfect place to hang out, have beer and enjoy the view after the sun goes down.

But one can’t talk about nightlife in Cali without mentioning its salsa clubs.

It doesn’t matter what your usual idea of a fun night out is -- personally, a club is the last place I want to be back home -- in Cali, experiencing one is a necessity for every traveler.

There are salsa schools all over town for those who want to learn some steps, which you can try out at clubs that are lively any night of the week; La Topa Tolondra offers free classes on Mondays. A swig of Colombia’s favorite liquor, aguardiente, will help you feel a little less self-conscious.

Just watching the scene on a Friday night at La Topa felt like a glimpse into the city’s heart, the day’s traffic and hustle building toward the night’s steaming dance floor, where Caleños carve out a small patch of space each fills with unique style.

There’s nothing for a visitor to do but dive in, and try to keep up.

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